SAN DIEGO -- When NJ/NY Gotham FC coach Juan Carlos Amoros thought about the moments that made his team an NWSL championship contender, his mind kept coming back to Snapdragon Stadium. It was here, in August, that Gotham lost four players to significant injuries and finished the match with 10 players and midfielder Nealy Martin playing in goal. Gotham lost that game but showed a resolve while under duress that impressed Amoros.
History repeated on Saturday. Gotham goalkeeper Mandy Haught was sent off in second-half stoppage time with her team leading OL Reign by a goal in the 2023 National Women's Soccer League Championship. Gotham had used all its substitution windows, so Martin put on the gloves and a spare goalkeeper kit for the final seconds to preserve the victory. Gotham's wall, which Haught helped organize by staying on the field during several minutes of confusion following the red card, blocked Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle's shot to prevent Martin from having to make a save.
"I can't believe, after saying that yesterday, Mandy Haught gets sent off in the 95th minute and Nealy Martin had to finish the Championship in goal for us to win it," said Amoros, drenched in beer from celebrations this time. "I think that was the full circle. It was like you write a script of a movie and it doesn't happen. It was unbelievable."
Gotham completed the worst-to-first journey with the 2-1 victory, but Saturday's NWSL Championship was a lesson in the duality of narratives, another reminder that nightmares exist alongside fairytales. The script that had been written was a winner-take-all retirement game between longtime United States women's national team teammates Megan Rapinoe and Gotham defender Ali Krieger.
That story blew up two minutes into the match. Rapinoe suffered a non-contact injury -- she said afterward that she is confident she tore her Achilles -- and had to be taken off the field. Krieger hugged her friend as Rapinoe hobbled off the pitch. "You never know if it's going to be your last game or your last moment... it's devastating," Krieger said. "And it changed the game. But then I have to actually just move on and focus on us and focus on winning."
Amoros and several players argued that the tactics of the game did not change drastically after Rapinoe's injury. Reign coach Laura Harvey brought on Bethany Balcer, who has played in the hybrid winger role throughout the season. Without a doubt, however, the emotional state of the game was different. "It was really sad," Gotham forward and 2023 NWSL Championship MVP Midge Purce said. "And then one of the girls on their team started crying and I turned to [Gotham midfielder Yazmeen Ryan] and I said, 'Let's go at her.'"
Purce did just that. Putting in the best 45 minutes of her NWSL career in the first half, Purce assisted both of Gotham's goals and wreaked havoc on the flank that Rapinoe had previously occupied. In the 24th minute, Purce danced through three separate challenges from Reign defenders on a dazzling 40-yard run down the sideline before picking out Lynn Williams at the six-yard box for the finish and the opening goal. Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle equalized five minutes later to punctuate another sensational individual performance, but Purce delivered the game-winning assist in first-half stoppage time with a perfectly delivered corner kick to the head of forward Esther González.
Gonzalez arrived at Gotham late in the summer after helping Spain win the 2023 World Cup. She joined a roster that featured plenty of winners but a franchise that had become too accustomed to losing. Gotham finished last in the NWSL in 2022, losing a record 12 straight games. It was not an anomaly for the franchise formerly known as Sky Blue FC, one that fell into global disrepute in 2018 for its treatment of players. Bags covering windows at team housing, no showers for players after training: these were the stories that defined the franchise not long ago. It showed on the field. Sky Blue did not claim a victory until its final match of a 24-game season in 2018, the worst season in league history.
Six years later, a circuitous journey delivered a championship 2,500 miles from home for a franchise -- and a league -- unrecognizable from what it was a few years ago. Gotham's triumph was an amalgamation of several incredible subplots. There was Williams, who arrived at Gotham via a draft-day trade in January, adding more experience to a core roster that featured players who had won plenty elsewhere. Williams won her fourth NWSL Championship on Saturday, tying her with injured teammate McCall Zerboni (who did not play) and North Carolina Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland for most in league history.
"Amazing -- they never get old," Williams said of the newest medal around her neck. "It's incredible. This one feels a bit different."
Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim won a championship after each returned to the field this year. Both players played prominent, brave roles in coming forward with their stories of alleged abuse in the league while playing in Portland nearly a decade ago. Their stories helped start a league-wide reckoning process to improve player safety. It was a league they had moved on from, but they came out of retirement this year to take back control of their stories. Hours after the final whistle on Saturday, with the lights at Snapdragon Stadium about to be turned off and the stands empty, Shim knelt on the field alone in a moment of silent celebration, championship medal around her neck.
Krieger earned her elusive NWSL Championship in the final match of her storied career, capping off arguably her best season in the league at age 39. "We just promised each other we would do everything in order to get here, and I am so proud of us, and I am so proud of myself," Krieger said.
Gotham's script was completed late in the match with heroics from Haught, a relatively inexperienced goalkeeper who only assumed the job in late August after Abby Smith was injured in that fateful game in San Diego. Haught preserved Gotham's lead in the 60th minute when she denied Reign forward Veronica Latsko 1-vs.-1 on a breakaway after Lavelle magically spun out of pressure from two Gotham defenders and slotted a ball in behind.
"Just being balanced and set and ready to react," Haught said of what was going through her mind. "I had a feeling she was gonna open up her hips and I felt right. I was able to come up with the big-time save to keep us in the lead."
Haught's other big moment came in the final seconds of the game. Reign forward Elyse Bennett chased down a loose ball bouncing toward Gotham's goal and got her head on it before Haught, who was at the edge of her box. Haught punched the ball, arms extended out of the box. After a brief video review, referee Katja Koroleva issued a red card. "I feel like I did what I had to do," Haught said, while Amoros added: "I was so proud of her because she made a key decision in a key moment."
In stepped Martin, whose only goalkeeping experience before this year's emergency relief efforts came in her final semester at college when Alabama only had one goalkeeper for the spring and needed a stand-in for practice. "I think they just know I'll throw my body at whatever," Martin said. "I'm a little crazy, will do whatever it takes."
Martin's mentality serves as a summary of Gotham's season. The No. 6 seed in the playoffs was not necessarily the team that jumped off the page as one ready to win an NWSL Championship, but Gotham has been more than the sum of its parts throughout the season.
A 4-1 victory over the Reign in Seattle in May served as a turning point for the team, one that players have referenced frequently as a moment that proved to themselves and the outside world how much potential they had. In that game and throughout the season, Gotham leaned into a high-pressure system that forced opponents into mistakes around their own goal. That happened again in the first half on Saturday, when Gotham regained the ball high up the field and forced the Reign to defend in deep areas.
Martin and Delanie Sheehan were unlikely anchors of the midfield, but they owned the middle of the park in all three playoff victories against teams with talented and more heralded players. Gotham, anchored by its organized chaos in midfield and resolute defending, kept finding ways to get results. Plenty of that credit goes to Amoros, who instilled a tactical fluidity in the team and achieved buy-in from all of them. From there, the players bought in and put together the necessary steps to win a championship. A long, tumultuous history has not been erased, but a new chapter has begun for Gotham.
"The thing about sports is that they tear you down and at the same time they can build you up," Purce said. "Everyone tells you not to get so low on the lows and so high on the highs. This is why you play. It makes those hard days worth it. It's always better than it is worse. I love this game and I am happy that it loved me back today."